Commercial microfinance in India, a subprime credit industry that lends to over 35 million working-class women at interest rates of 20 to 26 percent, has experienced unprecedented growth in the last decade. These profit-oriented microfinance institutions (MFIs), supported by financial inclusion policies, have funneled billions of dollars in loans to women borrowers previously constructed as uncreditworthy. Profit-oriented microfinance is best understood as an extractive industry reliant on the unpaid and underpaid labor of working-class women. As this labor is connected to relationships with frontline MFI workers, and eventually, financial capital, working class women become bearers of credit, even as the debt curbs their social and physical mobility. The widespread saturation of microfinance helps construct a new gendered reality in which millions of working-class women provide for their families through debt, while some working-class and upwardly mobile men can find secure livelihoods through MFI employment. Year after year, women MFI clients take ever-larger loans, while MFI workers and leaders, mostly men, enjoy social and economic mobility. The microfinance industry’s policies and practices thus sustain interlocking class and gender inequalities.
This presentation will lay out the gendered structure of microfinance and then delve more specifically into the relational work between clients and loan officers that makes women creditworthy in India’s gendered financial ecosystem.
Smitha Radhakrishnan is Professor of Sociology and Luella LaMer Professor of Women’s Studies at Wellesley College. Her research examines the cultural, financial, and political dimensions of gender and globalization, with particular focus on India, the United States, and South Africa.